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Personality Research in Animals

Of Animalities, Copying Styles and Behavioral Syndromes

One of the hottest topics in the field of animal behavior is the study of personality in nonhuman species. This work goes under many names besides personality: animalities, coping styles, and behavioral syndromes to name a few. You’d be hard pressed to open a major journal in the area of animal behavior and not find an article on this topic. For the most part, when animal behaviorists speak of personality they mean long-term, consistent different patterns of behavior among individuals in a population. The classic case, and the one best studied, is shy versus bold/risk-taking individuals.

My main goal in this post is to introduce the reader to the work on personalities in nonhumans, and so I will walk us through two examples, one dealing with oraguntans and the second with carnivores.

Psychologists have long measured subjective well-being in humans using scales which measure, among other things, positive versus negative mood, pleasure derived from social interactions, and the ability to achieve goals. Alexander Weiss, an animal behaviorist, modified these to examine the subjective well-being of orangutans housed in zoos. After seven years of observing orangutans in zoos, two personality types rose to the surface. Some orangutans showed low rates of neurotic behavior, coupled with high levels of extraversion, and positive interactions with both zookeepers and with other orangutans. One might say they were happy. Other orangutans showed the exact opposite set of behaviors. Which personality type an orangutan possessed turned out to be extraordinarily important. Animals that were happier lived significantly longer than those who scored lower on the subjective well-being test. And not just a little longer, but an average of 11 years longer.

Understanding personalities in nonhumans may help us minimize conflicts between humans and animals. What I mean here is this: a number of animals like wolves and cougars have been reintroduced into the wild, or have had conservation plans put into place to protect them. Success in these programs, welcome as it is, sometimes rekindles rivalries between ranchers and these large carnivores.

Because there is widespread, understandable opposition to killing large carnivores, some researchers have suggested focusing instead on "problem individuals" -- defined as individuals that repeatedly attack and kill livestock. Attacking ranchers’ livestock is a risky endeavor: predators must get around any fencing in place, and then risk being killed by humans defending their livestock. Carnivores who consistently attempt to attack such livestock -- the problem individuals -- display many of the personality traits associated with boldness.

What to do with that information on bold personality types? One possibility would be to use our growing understanding of animal personalities to design traps specifically for these sorts of individuals. Bold predators likely use hunting strategies that differ from the strategies of others in the population, perhaps taking different paths to reach prey, hunting at different times, or being more or less attracted to certain stimuli. Traps could then be built with the hunting strategy of such bold predators in mind.

Additional readings

Dugatkin, L. A. 2013. Principles of Animal Behavior. 3nd edition. W.W. Norton, New York. Parts of this are blog have been adapted from that book.

Weiss, A., J. E. King, and L. Perkins. 2006. Personality and subjective well-being in orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90:501-511.

Weiss, A., M. J. Adams, and J. E. King. 2011. Happy orangutans live longer lives. Biology Letters 7:872-874.